TAMPA — USF sharpshooting guard Dominique Jones realizes he's a marked man.
"It's been like that," he said with a shrug.
Even more so these days than last year. Even more so these days than during the first month of this season when the Bulls had an ideal complement in forward Gus Gilchrist. But Gilchrist, the team's scoring leader through eight games, severely sprained his right ankle in practice Dec. 7 and hasn't played since.
"I feel like I was going to raise my game anyway," Jones said. "I can't hold anything back."
He hasn't. In the team's past eight games, the junior from Lake Wales has increased his scoring average from 16.4 points to 22.6. For the season, he's averaging a career-best 19.5 points, third in the Big East.
"He's trying to carry us on his back, and he's really stepped his game up," Bulls coach Stan Heath said.
But with little scoring punch from anyone else, the Bulls (10-6, 0-4) have lost four in a row entering tonight's game against Big East rival Rutgers (9-7, 0-4), a team that is reeling even worse; it's on a five-game skid.
"We do have to have a second and third option out there that can pick up the scoring slack," Heath said. "It's too good of a league to try to beat people of this caliber with one player."
Jones had a season-high 30 points in Sunday's loss at No. 7 Syracuse; senior guard Mike Mercer (13) was the only other Bull in double figures. Jones then had 28 in Wednesday's loss to No. 10 West Virginia; no one else scored more than six points.
If teams "gang guard" him, as West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said was a must, Jones' teammates must punish them by making open shots.
"It's tough because they don't have to play honest defense with us not hitting shots," Jones said. "When we start hitting shots, teams are going to have to play a little bit more honest, and that's going to open things up for everybody."
After Wednesday's loss, he challenged his teammates to look in the mirror and ask if they're doing enough to prepare day in and day out to perform at a Big East level.
"I do a full workout before the game; all the time before practice, after practice, I'm putting in the work, so it feels like it's something I'm supposed to do," Jones said. "You get out of it what you put in."
"That's what I think the message he was trying to send, that you can make your shots and perform better, but you have to put the work in, not just in practice time," Heath said. "You have to be willing to sacrifice as well."
Despite the recent offensive woes, Heath remains confident that he has other capable shotmakers in the backcourt in Mercer, senior Chris Howard, sophomore Anthony Crater, a transfer from Ohio State who played for the first time against the Orange, and even freshmen Mike Burwell and Shaun Noriega. They just need to find a comfort zone.
Until then, Jones is the guy opponents will try to stop.
"I'm scared to death of him because we've got to play them again, and he almost beat us down there," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said of Jones, who had 26 in the 74-73 loss on Jan. 5 at the Sun Dome. "I compare him to Andrew Toney … a big, strong scoring guard."
He added that Jones would get his vote for first-team All-Big East. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who last summer invited Jones to try out for the under-19 World Championship team, is another fan.
"He shoots the ball, and he can get to the basket; he's really improved in getting to the basket," Boeheim said. "He's a tremendous player. He's the focal point, so he's going to get the ball (a lot), but to put up numbers, you've still got do it."
And Jones has.
"It is really difficult to produce the way he is when everybody is focused on you," Heath said. "But he's special. He's very special."
Brian Landman can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3347.